#416  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 8          August 1999

Understanding People for Enhanced Team Performance
by Sandra Seagal, Ph.D. and David Horne, M.A.

Dr. Seagal is president and Mr. Horne is partner  of Human Dynamics International in Topanga, CA (phone 310-455-1149; email admin@humandynamics.com; www.humandynamics.com).  They are authors of Human Dynamics: A New Framework for Understanding People and Realizing the Potential in Our Organizations (Pegasus, Waltham, MA, 1997; can order through above phone/email).

A fundamental key to enhanced team functioning lies not only in recognizing that people are different, but also in understanding how they are different. Awareness of these differences provides the opportunity for group members to recognize, appreciate and utilize the gifts that each naturally embodies, and to use their diversity to create synergism.  The result is not only enhanced productivity, but also more joy at work.

Through two decades of studies, we have identified nine “personality dynamics.”  Five of them are by far the most numerous.  They are termed 1) mental-physical, 2) emotional-mental, 3) emotional-physical, 4) physical-emotional and 5) physical-mental. 

The terminology is not so important as the understanding that people who represent these distinct “ways of being” are totally different in the ways they process information, solve problems, learn, communicate, become stressed, maintain health, move along their path of development and function on teams.

Below are sketches of these personality dynamics.


Mental-physical people think and plan in an orderly, logical and sequential way.  They are, by nature, consistently detached.  Even in emotional situations they typically remain calm and objective.  They maintain a bird’s-eye perspective on events, and usually bring gifts for formulating and articulating a long-range vision, and for strategic planning to achieve long-term goals.  They don’t usually involve themselves in creating complex, detailed plans, however.  They tend to deal more in essentials: essential points, values, and principles. In whatever they personally engage or communicate, clarity and precision are key values. 

Mental-physical people may often be silent in a group.  They typically feel no need to articulate a point if someone else is making it.  Also, because they think logically and like to express their point of view precisely, they may have difficulty finding space to contribute in a less-than-orderly group process.  Because of their detachment and because they are comfortable working alone, mental-physical people may be misinterpreted as being aloof and not caring.  In fact their caring is expressed in their offering of objectivity, which typically enables them to be good listeners and helpful in situations of conflict.  They are often able to voice principles or overarching considerations that unify apparently disparate views.  If you want to know what a quiet mental-physical person is thinking or feeling, ask him or her! 

Phrases commonly used by mental-physical people include: “What exactly is the purpose?” “What are the long-term implications?” “What exactly do you mean by...?”  “Why...?”


The thinking and planning of emotional-mental people is much less linear than that of the mental-physical.  Emotional-mental people very much enjoy an interactive brainstorming kind of process, in which one idea triggers another, and new possibilities and lines of inquiry are explored.  Their ideas are directed towards short-term problem solving.

One of the main gifts of this group is to initiate--to light the fires of new endeavors.  They are drawn to the new and unknown.  Movement is their inner directive.  If they don’t feel a sense of movement and new challenge, their spirit dies.   Rather than plan ahead in detail, they prefer to establish the direction of a task, its purpose and value, and then move into action as soon as possible, learning as they go.  This experimental movement leads to a new situation, reassessment, another movement, and so on until the goal is reached.  In team meetings, people of this personality dynamic frequently begin the discussion, facilitate the interplay of ideas, and want to keep the process moving forward.

Because of their characteristic enthusiasm and intensity of focus, members of this group can be misinterpreted as needing to take charge and “direct the show.”  In fact, they welcome their ideas being challenged, because new and better ideas might emerge.

Typical phrases you may hear from emotional-mental people include: “Let’s put all the ideas on the board and prioritize.”  “The details can wait -- first let’s create a general structure.” “It’s good enough.”  “Let’s go!”


Like the emotional-mental group, emotional-physical people also think and plan in a non-linear, associative kind of way.  They, too, like to think and plan with others; but preferably in a more personal process in which their feelings play a role and they feel a sense of personal relationship with the other team members.  For them, not only can one idea lead to another, but a feeling may trigger a line of thought, or surface a personal recollection that may suggest other avenues for exploration.  In teamwork, emotional-physical people are engaged not only in an exchange of ideas, but a process of personal connection. 

Emotional-physical people are highly sensitive to both their own feelings and the feelings of others.  They can often pick up the feelings of other people, even if those feelings are not being overtly expressed.  On teams, therefore, they are always aware both of addressing purposes and also of tracking the quality of the team’s process and fostering harmony.  They are usually highly effective in providing insight into “people issues,” and are sensitive to personal implications of decisions, both for themselves and for others.  They typically need time to engage in extensive discussion in order to explore, understand and feel comfortable with these implications before they are ready to move on.  They also require dialogue with others to clarify both their thinking and feeling.

Emotional-physical people tend to be multi-focused and able to handle many things at once.  They are also highly intuitive, both about people, and also with regard to the viability of proposed courses of action.  Since they often cannot give a rational explanation for what they sense in the moment, their “knowings” may not be taken seriously.   But given time, the emotional-physical person will usually come to a rational understanding of his/her intuition, and both the individual and the team may learn by experience that it is a signal to be trusted.  Emotional-physical people are often also extremely creative.  The intuitive and creative capacities of these people are natural resources that groups and organizations often neglect.

Emotional-physical people can be misinterpreted as being too personal, unclear and over-sensitive.  In fact, their sensitivity and their capacity for making personal connections should be valued for its potential to help people live and work together in greater harmony.  Communication is their lifeline.  Through it they gain clarity and can contribute their gifts to others.  In a supportive atmosphere, where they feel understood and comfortable, their capacity for creative input will bloom.  

Some phrases characteristic of emotional-physical people are: “Is that comfortable for you?”  “I feel that....” “My gut feeling is.....”  “Can we talk more about that?”  “If we do (or say) that, I think the effect on ______ would be.......”


Physical-emotional people are by nature “systems thinkers.”  They think naturally in terms of how all of the parts interact to form whole systems of operation.  In any new undertaking, they spend the greatest amount of time in gathering large amounts of data, which they then assimilate and synthesize through a rather mysterious internal process which isn’t consciously planned.  If sufficient time is allowed for this process to complete itself, all of the data will at some point come together in the person’s mind, and the result will be a plan or product that’s detailed, comprehensive, highly practical, and with all of the parts linked.

They are often of few words, preferring communication that’s factual, down to earth and pragmatic. They need time to assimilate the vast amounts of information they take in.  These characteristics, as well as their difficulty in articulating their thinking until it is complete, often cause them to be misinterpreted as being “slow.”  In fact, they move very quickly into action in situations that are familiar.  In new situations, they will produce the most comprehensive plans and detailed work, provided their process is respected and given sufficient time.  Their capacity to remember detail is prodigious.  They are natural historians, and their memory for the past can ensure that a group doesn’t waste time re-inventing the wheel. 

If a physical-emotional person is silent during a meeting, it may be because the pace isn’t sufficiently deliberate, or the group process is too disconnected, or because a great deal of new information is being given.  The team will benefit by remembering to ask such a person, especially towards the end of any meeting, if he or she has anything to say.  The members may be surprised by how much the individual has observed and absorbed and is able to comment on.  It is often helpful to such people to be provided with relevant data before a meeting, to allow more time for absorption, without the distraction of the group’s interactions.

Because they tend to be conscious of themselves more as members of a group than as individuals within a group, physical-emotional people often need to learn to make known their own personal wishes, feelings and needs.

Some typical phrases of physical-emotional people are:  “Can we have more information?”  “How will that work practically?” “Can you give me an example?”  “How much time do we have?”  “We need to have a real experience, not just talk."


Physical-mental people also naturally think in terms of systems of operation, but they are highly systematic.  Like the physical-emotional group, they take in large amounts of information, but they are more selective of what they take in.  They work with their data through step-by-step plans for achieving a given purpose.  Because they think in such a systematic way, it’s important for them that the purpose of any meeting or endeavor be clearly defined, and then they like the group to create a structured process for achieving that purpose.  Without a clear purpose and a structured process for achieving it, they feel frustrated and unable to function. 

Like the mental-physical group, they have natural gifts for objectivity and strategic planning; but they typically deal with much more information and create plans that are much more detailed.  They switch easily between a macro- and micro-perspective.

Physical-mental people typically value efficiency, and constantly create systems to make things work well.  They then refine the systems to make them work even better.  These people often carry their remarkable capacity for planning into every aspect of their lives, usually creating additional contingency plans in anticipation of unforeseen events.  They can become frustrated by other people’s less organized way of going about things, and when others’ personal whims and feelings disrupt or interfere with their plans.  Others can therefore see them as being rigid and over-mechanical, and interpret them as not caring about other people.  In fact, their gift for planning is their offering to others. 

Typical phrases of physical-mental people are; “What’s our purpose?”  “What’s the current situation?” “Where do we want to go?”  “Let’s work out the steps to get there.”  “Suppose _____ happens, then what will we do?”

By paying attention to these personality dynamics, you should gain insights into the behavior of some of the people with whom you interact.  As a result, your teamwork will be more harmonious and effective.

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